Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

“The Help” captivates by plot, cinematography, not with message

Civil rights fable “The Help” is nominated for four Oscars, including best picture – and understandably so. It’s a technically sound film with a captivating plot, lush cinematography, emotional resonance and solid acting, aside from a few of the actresses’ inability to hold on to a Southern accent.


Unfortunately, where it is artful with its basic elements, it is clumsy with its message. As with many white savior-based Oscar bait movies of the past, it strives to shame racism, blur color lines and invite a white audience to feel good about themselves. As such, “The Help” represents a failing of both originality and moral grounding.

“The Help” follows aspiring white journalist Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) as she tries to write a controversial book about the lives of black maids and their stuck-up white bosses in Jackson, Miss.

Though narrated in voice over by maid Aibileen (Viola Davis) in a weird attempt to reclaim the story as the maids’, the plot very much belongs to Skeeter.

We see flashbacks to Skeeter’s past, Skeeter’s interactions with her sick mother (Allison Janney), Skeeter’s romantic adventures and Skeeter’s eventual success as a writer. The movie obviously wants us to see Aibileen and comedic relief maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) as the complex characters they should be, but we only witness them in the context of their occupation and race.

Capitalizing on “Mad Men” nostalgia, “The Help” sneaks in a plethora of 1960s clichés meant to shock us with how far we’ve come. The smoking! The hair styles! The Crisco! Then there’s the racism, blatant and casual, inflicted by all the white antagonists. This in and of itself is not problematic, but the dichotomies it sets up are dangerous, especially for a film working hard to appeal to a white audience.

First, it emphasizes the degree and harmfulness of racism of the 1960s, very much inviting the comparison to the present day. The implication is: “Look how bad it was! Look how far we’ve come!” The film champions the present, ignoring that racism, both institutionalized and personal, is still a very large part of our lives. While the film never directly addresses what’s to come in the future, its emphasis on the differences of the past lets scoot right by all the ways we’re still the same.

Secondly, “The Help” creates a dichotomy of good, non-racist white people and bad, racist white people. Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the town’s queen bee, is a villain through and through. We are meant to cheer when she is tricked into literally eating feces. She is constantly demeaning the maids, calling up stereotypes and generally being a nasty person. Most of the other, lesser white characters are equally hateful and ignorant. Only college-educated Skeeter and ditzy, naive Celia Foote (a high-pitched Jessica Chastain), the white half of the comedic relief, treat the maids as human beings.

Painting racism as a phenomenon only occurring in monsters and snobs makes it impossible for the average, good-hearted white person to be racist. This is directly in opposition to the real world, where racism is complicated and systemic, and basically all white people will engage in racism throughout their lives, whether they realize it or not. For the epitome of our white hero’s goodness to be her colorblindness and the peak of our white villain’s evil to be racism is irresponsible and neglectful of how the real world works.

In its efforts to appeal to any white people out there who might turned off by the actual fact that racism sucks for black people, “The Help” is careful to have several scenes outlining how hard it is to be a racist. Most memorably, there is a scene where Skeeter’s mother explains why she had to fire Constantine, the maid who raised Skeeter but vanished while she was at college.

The elderly Constantine committed a faux pas at a dinner party with a bunch of crotchety old white ladies, and Skeeter’s mother was consequently peer pressured into sending her beloved maid away. Allison Janney cries and cries and Skeeter cries and cries, but we never see Constantine again. It’s as if the most difficult part of this elderly woman wrongly being fired was the emotional trauma it caused her white boss.

The Association of Black Women Historians wrote an open letter to fans of “The Help” outlining the problematic portrayal of the black maids. This includes a reliance on the “Mammy” stereotype, the use of a “child-like, over-exaggerated ‘black’ dialect,” totally ignoring the prominence of sexual assault and abuse black women faced from white men, and the complete absence of black men in the film, only portraying them off screen as angry and abusive.

The association also pointed out the lack of agency of the black women portrayed in the film. This was a time of great resistance and big steps forward in civil rights for black Americans; it isn’t as if there is a lack of stories to tell about black women fighting for change. “The Help” decides those stories are not as important, and perhaps profitable, as those of a young white woman lending a hand.

The best part of “The Help” is Davis’ acting, and if Meryl Streep isn’t up there pretending to be surprised on Sunday, Davis will probably be standing in her place. She is restrained and stoic for most of the film, making her flashes of emotion potent and effective. Compared to the flouncing and giggling most of the white actresses do the whole time, Davis is powerful.

While “The Help” wants to teach lessons and warm hearts, it is betrayed by its own ending. The book Skeeter writes, based on the stories she collects from the maids, is a huge success. The white villains are scandalized, the South is exposed for the crazy place it is in movies like this, and all is right with the world. Skeeter gets a job in a major publishing house, and, having capitalized on the lives of the less privileged, she moves to New York to follow her dreams.

What of Aibileen and Minny, the women who risked their lives to tell their stories? Minny is allowed to keep her job working for the other good, non-racist white lady. Aibileen is fired at the whim of evil Hilly Holbrook. That’s the reality the plot hides from for so much of the movie. Three women work together to create powerful change, to tell the truth, and only one of them benefits.

And it’s not because of her personality.

Victoria Knobloch can be reached at [email protected]

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